This week sees the release of Sleepwalk, a “home listening” compilation from Optimo.

The Glasgow-based DJs are best known for their no-holds-barred, party-smashing style, but they’re interests extend far beyond the dancefloor: the richly rewarding, genre-hopping Sleepwalk takes in tracks by the likes of Karen Dalton, Cluster, Mulatu Astatke, Coil, Duke Ellington, Arthur Russell, as well as uncharacteristically blissed-out fare from Coil and Nurse With Wound. We caught up with JD Twitch to discuss the genesis of Sleepwalk and why “chill-out” is such a disgraced genre…

How did the Sleepwalk commission come about?

“Well, a good friend of ours, Stephen McRobbie [of The Pastels] runs Geographic, which is a sub-label of Domino. He knows what music we like, and thought that we might do something really interesting, and so made Domino aware of us. They liked what they heard, and suggested that we come up with an unspecified project for the label. We didn’t just want to do another dance mix – in this day and age dance mixes are so ubiquitous to download on the internet. Also, the nature and history of Domino meant it was an opportunity for us to do something completely different…”

“It was just a joy to do something different to what we’re best known for, but which still represents what we do.  It’s always been very important to us when we do the club that the first hour of the night isn’t all about the dancefloor, it’s music for people when they’re arriving and having a drink, and it’s played at a lower volume so that people can actually socialize rather than just walking into a club and being met on with a full-on dancefloor. It’s also a way in which we can indulge ourselves and play loads of music that we would only ever usually listen to at home – sometimes it’s our favourite part of the night. So we wanted to do something that represented that part of what we do: our interest in other types of music that weren’t really made with the dancefloor in mind.”

Sleepwalk put me in mind of cassette mixtapes I used to make for people when I was a teenager. Was that something you had in mind when you made it?

“Absolutely…I mean, I don’t have a cassette player anymore, but cassette mixes like that are definitely something I used to do. Quite often you’d be giving them to a lover, you’d try to weave some kind of narrative with it…”

The tracks on Sleepwalk aren’t mixed per se, but was there any editing?

“There is a little bit of editing, and then the tracks were segued together. There’s no point in trying to mix these kind of songs, that would be ridiculous; it was nice to just play the records, trying to create some sort of narrative flow.”

Industrial/post-industrial bands like Coil, Tuxedomoon and Nurse With Wound figure prominently on Sleepwalk, and on past Optimo compilations too. Is that a genre/era of music that you have a special relationship with?

“Absolutely. Before I became a DJ, it was the music I was really heavily obsessed with. I think people always think of those bands as making harsh, dissonant noise but they also made a lot of incredibly beautiful, emotive music as well. So I guess I wanted to show that side of them…But yeah, we like to showcase our roots, but we also like to use old records that we only discovered in the last few years.”

The Coil track is incredible. How did the “exclusive mix” by [Coil and Throbbing Gristle’s] Peter Christopherson come about?

“The first time I heard it was on some live album recorded in Russia, and I just absolutely adored the original, and then we contacted him [Christopherson], and he was like, “Well, how about if I do you a special version?” So obviously we jumped at the chance…”

One of my favourite moments on the mix is when ‘Nashville Blues’ [by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band] arrives, as if out of nowhere…

“That song’s amazing, I know; it’s so joyous, it’s almost ridiculous…but it’s beautiful at the same time.”

Are there any other tracks on there which have a particular personal significance for you? You’re a big Arthur Russell fan, right?

“I’m a complete Arthur Russell obsessive…There’s a cliché about music saving your life, but his music almost literally did…I was going through a fairly bad period in the early-’90s when I was just having a terrible time, and it was around then that I discovered Arthur Russell, and an album called Another Thought – it’s probably the album I’ve listened to most in the history of my life. It saw me through that really bad time, so ever since then I’ve been on a mission to introduce Russell to as many people as possible, and almost everyone who hears his music tends to be moved by it and tends to like it. So that’s something that’s very, very personal to me  – and particularly that song, which ended up being used on a mobile phone advert, which I kind of have mixed feelings about – it’s weird when something so personal to you gets used in a commercial, but then I’m also a populist – I really believe in trying to popularize great music that maybe isn’t so well known. So it’s a good thing, that the ad may have introduced other people to his music.”

What did you think of Matt Wolf’s film [Wild Combination, the recently released Arthur Russell documentary]?

“I thought it was fascinating…I was in tears at a couple of points, but I turned round and some other people in the room were as well so I didn’t feel quite so silly…Yeah, I’ve actually seen it twice, I thought he [Wolf] did a wonderful job; there’s been a little bit of criticism, saying there’s not enough on the disco era. But I think it’s a very personal tale, and he’s explained that the footage he had of people talking about the disco era was just really boring, and he wanted to have more of a personal story of Arthur’s life, which I think he did very well.”

You DJ’d at the ICA’s screening of Wild Combination

“Yeah, it was an excuse for me to play three hours of Arthur Russell records! Some people there didn’t entirely get what I was doing – someone came up and said, ‘Can you play some techno’?, and I explained why I couldn’t, and they just looked confused. Someone else asked me if I had any salsa, and I was like, “I really don’t think Arthur made any salsa…” But really it was the most self-indulgent DJ set ever, to play three hours of music by one artist, but his music is so varied that it didn’t sound like that…

What about Liquid Liquid?  You DJ’d at their London show last month and remixed ‘Optimo’…

“Yeah, I mean they gave us our name, as you know…It was them who asked us to do the remix, and initially I was like, I really don’t want to do it, because the original is absolutely perfect – there’s nothing you can do to improve it. They mentioned that when they originally recorded it, they had intended it to be longer, and that there was going to be a brass section, but they ran out of money so they sacked it off. So I suppose we just tried to imagine what it would have been like had they made it longer and had a brass section. The original is so perfect that nothing can ever compete, but it was still an honour to do it.”

What new music have you been getting excited about recently?

“I am literally drowning in music. There’s so much I listen to, off the top of my head I can’t think of anything…There’s a band from America called Religious Knives…I’ve also been listening to lots and lots of African music, that’s kind of my big thing at the moment.”

Optimo’s been going for over a decade now. What plans do you have for the future?

“Well, it’s our eleventh anniversary next month…You know, nothing goes on forever, and we’re thinking there might come a point where we stop it and do something else. I think we’ll continue to produce and tour and whatever else as often as we always have, but there’s definitely other avenues we’d like to explore.”

Will you be concentrating more on production?

“Again, in the early-’90s I did a project which was on Matador Records, called Mount Florida – which wasn’t done all on computers, it was more of a band thing – it’s something that I’ve just started working on again with a friend of mine, and it’s in the very early stages. The problem is not having enough time. I would like to try and devote more time to actually coming up with an original music project, definitely…”

Why do you think the “chill-out” CD is such a disgraced format in general?

It’s become a terrible cliché, the whole idea of it…But, I think people do like to have something that they can listen to in that kind of situation, very late at night…We originally wanted to give away a free CD with the club, which was based around a similar idea and similar music, and it was called – you know the series Back To Mine? – well, ours was called Why Nobody Comes Back To Mine. A lot of the music we like, most people don’t actually like it.!

“It’s kind of rare in this day and age that a record label will give you the chance to do whatever you want, and we were very fortunate that Domino did. Some people will buy this and hopefully they’ll love it, but I think some other people will be a little bamboozled by it, which I think is a good thing. It’s good to confuse people a little bit.”

Kiran Sande



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